English Is Sneaky

English is an incredible language.  It has the delicate touch of Da Vinci’s smile or the turbulent sweep of a Constable sky.  It is the paint we use to conjure our audience’s imagination.  With it, we can flutter a hummingbird’s wing or charge the gates of Hell with righteous fury.  We can do anything with English — including hiding what we want to say in the very words we use to say it.  These are the sneaky words.  They’re usually an oxymoron like “preventable accident,” which sounds totally benign until you realize it actually means “You weren’t watching, you ignorant dolt.  If you’d been paying attention, none of this would’ve happened!”  Face it, folks: that’s exactly what a “preventable accident” really is.  There are a bunch of sneaky words like this that carry all kinds of baggage with them.  Here are just a few more.

1 — Minor crisis – This is a sneaky way of either ramping up the drama or playing down the problem.  The truth is, if it’s a crisis, it isn’t minor; and if it’s minor, it isn’t a crisis.  Either way, anyone who starts yipping about a “minor crisis” is probably riding the incompetence train.

2 — So-called – This is one of those tattletale words that instantly lets us know who the author is cheering for.  No matter how objective they may claim to be, when somebody says “so-called,” it’s never positive, and the connotation is always, “You can call it whatever you like, but we all know what’s going on here, you lying bastard.”

3 — Least favourite – These words have gotten a lot sneakier in recent history.  Back in the day, it was just a slippery way to say, “I don’t like that” without hurting anybody’s feelings.  But, these days, with the addition of 21st century sarcasm, the sky’s the limit on how far down the scrotum pole this can put you.

4 — No offence – These are the words we use when we’ve just offended somebody and we’re worried about getting punched in the face.  Normally, we tack them on at the end when we suddenly realize what we just said.  However, sometimes, when we want to get a kick in, we lead with them, and then add a “but” and a pause to let everybody know we’re the ones doing the punching this time.

5 — Open secret – Here’s another couple of tattletale words that tells us the author thinks he’s a lot smarter than we are.  The premise is there’s secret information available, but only a select group of people who are in-the-know, know it — and the connotation is always – not you.

6 — Zero tolerance – These are the words we use when we know we have a problem but we also know we can’t (or won’t) do anything about it.  For example, “Our school has zero tolerance for bullies.” means the skinny kid with glasses is still going to get kicked around like it’s World Cup, but once a year, we’re going to let him wear a pink t-shirt.

7 — Working holiday (vacation) – These are the sneakiest words in the universe.  They can mean anything.
a) – Your husband forces you to take a vacation, but you can’t stand the man, so you stay in the hotel and work.
b) – You want a vacation, but you have too much work to do.  So you go to Mexico and party with your girlfriend for two weeks and do all the work on the flight home.
c) – You want a vacation, but you’re broke– so you talk your company into sending you to a conference somewhere.
d) – You discover the dream vacation you booked online is a pestilent hole – “Oh, well!  Might as well get some work done.”

And finally:

8 — Passive aggressive – We all know what this means.  We all know someone who practices this dark art with delicious glee.  We all know we’d like to slap them for doing it.  However, we just don’t have the cojones to call them on it.  So instead of creating a scene with shouting, denial and tears, we say they’re passive aggressive (as if it’s an incurable mental condition) and put up with their manipulating bullshit.

Big Word Day — 2021

What this planet needs is Big Word Day.  One day a month (I suggest the first Monday) when we’re allowed to use those big godawful words that make us all sound like pompous asses.  Then, at midnight, everybody has to go back to talking (and writing) like regular people.  Big Word Day would not only clear the air of pretentious language, it would shorten business meetings, reduce government bullshit and keep corporations from drowning us in doublespeak policies, warranties, guarantees and disclaimers.  (What’s the difference between a warranty and a guarantee, anyway?)  I know big words are tempting and I’m as guilty as the next person, so I understand why we like to sound as if we just stepped off Oxford Common — but it’s getting out of hand.  We don’t buy things anymore; we purchase them.  We don’t help; we facilitate.  We don’t think; we conceptualize. And — horror upon horrors — we don’t talk; we verbalize.

The big problem with big words is people don’t think that way.  We think in broad abstractions that get translated into words when we speak (or write) so we can communicate meaning.  For example, when I write “John saw a girl” unless you’re a Himalayan holy man who’s lived alone in a cave for 50 years, you see the girl, too.  Your girl and John’s girl might not look the same, but the meaning is clear.  This is because my words are a direct translation of my thoughts.  However, when I write, “John observed a girl” things get a little muddled.  Suddenly, because of nuance and connotation, John isn’t passive anymore.  The girl is still the object of the sentence but John is definitely more involved.  He’s deliberately doing something.  Hey!  Wait a minute!  Who is this guy?  What is he, some kind of stalker?  You see, the meaning has changed.  This might be a bit of an exaggeration (after all, I haven’t clarified whether John had binoculars or not) but my point is it’s more difficult to translate words into meaning when they’re carrying extra baggage.  And big words all carry tons of baggage.

Don’t get me wrong; big words are important.  English is a precise language with surgical accuracy, so I don’t want to get rid of big words altogether.  I just think, these days, they’ve slipped the leash and I want to corner them and get them under control again.  Big Word Day would do that.  It would force us to quit utilizing big words all the time and only use them when they’re necessary.  Plus, and this is the good bit, jerks with an intellectual chip on their shoulders would have to shut the hell up most of the time — and that alone would be worth it.

Killing English

We are killing the English language.  I’m not talking about government euphemisms or corporation obfuscation.  No, this is ordinary people taking ordinary words and choking the life out of them.  Let me demonstrate.

Old — Where did all the old people go?  Apparently, they’ve all been rounded up and taken to an over-the-horizon retirement community where they’re enjoying senior living.  (I have no idea what this is BTW, but it seems to involve a lot of manicured lawns, plastic patio furniture and drugs.)  Then, one day, magically, they all become elderly and get carted off to an Elder Care Facility where … uh … I don’t know … we never hear from them again.  But old people?  No, our world doesn’t have any old people. 

Fat — Nobody’s fat these days, so unless you’re a supermodel, you have three choices — plus size, curvy and we’re not going to talk about it.  Apparently, the world believes that if we don’t actually say the word, people won’t know when their pants don’t fit anymore.

Brat — Let’s get real!  Not every obnoxious kid on this planet has a diagnosed illness.  Sometimes, they’re just brats, but if you want to get into a fistfight, mention the word.  It is amazing to me what lengths bad parents will go to, to avoid being called “bad parents” — including saddling their child with an incurable psychological disorder.

Stupid — “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”  Think about this!  Of course there is, and they’re normally asked by stupid people.  The Law of Probability alone says half the population of this planet is stupider than the other half.  However, use the word to describe someone who is obviously in Group A and you’re liable to get lynched by a Twitter mob.

Ugly — I’m not even going to go there.

Died — When I was a kid, people died.  It was a harsh reality of life.  Then, suddenly, people quit dying and began passing away (like sugar dissolving in the rain.)  It’s a cute idea, but honestly, when someone goes headfirst through the windshield, “he passed away” doesn’t really describe it.  And, of course, these days, folks don’t even pass away anymore; they merely pass (as if it were a spelling test.)  The #1 preoccupation of literature, religion, philosophy and life itself, and we’ve reduced it to this bullshit?  How bland has our existence become?

This is the language of Shakespeare, Blake and Yeats — have some respect.  But the real problem is, as we continue to drown our language in mild, we’re starting to think that way and that scares the hell out of me.

Originally written January, 2016 and gently edited